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The exhibition Agents of Faith: Votive Objects in Time and Place revealed the moving, sometimes playful yearning that accompanies a primal desire to be in the company of the supernatural. Curated by Ittai Weinryb, the Bard Graduate Center Gallery exhibition posited that this desire to visualize or materialize the miraculous is a practice that has existed in all periods and places. It featured objects ranging from Etruscan terra-cottas to Mexican votive paintings to Bavarian and Italian wax casts of individual body parts to a Harley-Davidson motorcycle made for the Vietnam War Memorial. Weinryb asserted in the wall text that votive giving is a “global phenomenon” that evinces how “faith is a common aspect of all human societies.”
Organized on three floors, the exhibition deliberately did not chart a linear course through the installation. In a single case, for example, the viewer encountered an eighteenth-century Italian votive painting created in gratitude for surviving a hunting accident and a nineteenth-century damaged pistol that “exploded when it was fired but the shooter, unharmed, gave the instrument of his mishap as thanks for the grace he received.” These objects, like many of those in the exhibition, were borrowed from the Rudolf Kriss collection at the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum in Munich. Kriss (1903–1973) was an Austrian folklorist who had amassed a remarkable collection of artifacts pertaining to popular devotional practices. Yet, curiously, no attention was devoted to this crucial source in the galleries. For example, it was not clear if the aforementioned juxtaposition had already existed in Munich or whether it was Weinryb’s curatorial gesture. Kriss’s collecting in the first half of the twentieth century likely stemmed from an ethnographic impulse to chronicle the waning practices of popular devotion, which would have been linked to pagan and medieval practices. The countryside itself served as an atemporal “memory” of the land, as Mikhail Bakhtin and Simon Schama have established. Including such historiographical commentary would have enriched the exhibition by contextualizing its arguments.
Among the many important questions raised was why interest paid to such objects in scholarship has been so delayed. The array of artifacts presented gave viewers a sense of the variety of skills devoted to their manufacture; didactic videos, for example, explained how wax votives were cast in specialized workshops. The distinctions between aesthetic objects and functional artifacts were also blurred to good effect, but the viewer was not alerted as to the reasoning that motivated this decision.
With few exceptions, each object in the exhibition once belonged to a surfeit of similar imagery deposited at a shrine, which, at best, would have been only partially visible. The accretion of votives at each devotional site becomes the visualization of the efficacy of that place and evidence of the power of the deity associated with it. On the third floor, thematically labeled “Site,” floor-to-ceiling reproductions of sacred sites in India, Iran, and Italy formed a photographic backdrop for devotional objects from those places. The overlap of object and simulation could be discordant, even distracting, in an intimate gallery space, but this element of exhibition design approximated the feeling of sensory overload that one would experience at a pilgrimage site.
However, the idea that the votive, as a class of objects, is a universal occurrence becomes spurious when it is exported from the Catholic context to other religions and devotional practices around the world. The phrase ex-voto susceptor, from which the votive arises, is fundamentally tied to language in the Catholic milieu. It pertains in Latin to “a vow made,” necessitating a transactional relationship between supplicant and deity that is contingent on the deliverance of a prayer or wish. This definition works neatly for the appendages and other body parts fashioned from silver and wax deposited with the hope of healing oneself or a loved one (or as testimony of such miracles) that are particular to the Catholic framework. Once this idea is extended to India, for example, the definition of a votive needs to be expanded to accommodate the microarchitectural reliquaries that duplicate sacred Buddhist stupas; a relic, after all, is not a votive. This was a consistent problem in the exhibition: when the idea of the votive was stretched to incorporate the entire world, one ceased to distinguish between objects and behaviors that are, in fact, quite different. The culmination of such discrepancies came in the ground floor gallery, dedicated to Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial. There, objects and rituals memorialized the departed but were not always linked to the promise of deliverance. They seemed like awkward additions to the category of “votives” as outlined above.
One of the most exciting pairings in the exhibition was of a fourteenth-century wooden Madonna and Child from Umbria and a late nineteenth-century Kongo Power Figure (n’kisi n’kondi). Perhaps exigencies of conservation had guided the installation as the Madonna loomed over the viewer, while the n’kisi was situated below eye level, in a nearby case. This juxtaposition could have been a revelation in cross-cultural comparison, but both the placement and the lack of a connecting narrative left the viewer at a loss as to what these sculptures, originating centuries apart and thousands of miles from one another, had in common. A great deal of attention was paid to the Madonna, on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, displayed with a life-size X-ray of the sculpture that revealed a rosary and a bit of lace embedded, out of sight, in the left leg of the Virgin. The label suggested that these precious items may have been offered by members of a nearby nunnery “with the hope of communicating directly with the Virgin.” At what point in the manufacture of the sculpture would these objects have been interred? Was this a practice delimited by gender? And what did these have to do with the n’kisi (borrowed from the Brooklyn Museum) next to it?
The term n’kisi n’kondi refers to a class of power figure that regulated the behavior of the people that commissioned it. Its creation depended on several participants: the community’s elder or chief would choose the wood and the sculptor; the sculptor would carve the figure as a receptacle awaiting activation by a priest (n’ganga); the priest enlivened the sculpture through the insertion of sacrificial and other potent organic materials in the stomach, behind the eyes, and in the mouth of the figure. Only once the n’kisi n’kondi had been charged with these magico-religious materials could it be introduced to the community as an efficacious arbiter of justice, not unlike the way relics activate reliquaries. Individuals would organically bind themselves to their vows by first licking a piece of iron, and then seal their pact by nailing the metal into the body of the n’kisi n’kondi. These promises were kept for fear of the swift punishment of the spirit personified as virulent hunter.
Many connections could be drawn between these objects, but the exhibition itself did not provide the viewer with the contextual specificity required to raise meaningful questions (although some of these links are pursued in the catalog). The n’kisi was powerless and considered useless without the intervention of the n’ganga; could the invisible objects in the Virgin have served to enliven her presence or attract her attention in a commensurate manner? Who commissioned the Virgin and from whom? Were worshippers told about the objects embedded within it, as Kongolese villagers would have been aware of the invisible substances giving the n’kisi n’kondi its power?
Today, such objects’ status as specimens of “fine art” from medieval Europe and Africa is generally uncontested, and they are part of important museum collections. However, during most of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they were confined to the diminutive class of magico-religious objects that comprised ethnographic collections as evidence of the ritual practices they facilitated. In fact, the term “fetish,” which in commercial circles is still employed to sell power figures, was first used by the Portuguese to describe African ritual objects in the fifteenth century. These sailors employed the term feitiço (from the Latin facere, “to make”), associated with the kind of archaic approaches to Christianity that they observed in rural people in fifteenth-century Europe. They extended notions of witchcraft and idolatry, paradoctrinal behavior already replete with dismissal, to the practices they observed in the Kingdom of Kongo, as William Pietz has shown.
The exhibition did not adequately distinguish between Catholic and Protestant attitudes to these objects. It seems a missed opportunity not to chart disruption alongside continuity, especially in the light of art history’s “material” turn. The church maintained a distinction between idolatry and the cult of relics, which it has always upheld, but votive objects and their cousins, the “miraculous images,” occupy a more ambiguous and therefore dangerous territory. As Aby Warburg brought to light over a hundred years ago, even in their own time, votives were contested and highly dubious. As the Florentine poet Francesco Sachetti wrote, “Every day votive effigies like this are made, which are more a form of idolatry than of Christian faith” (Sachetti as translated by Warburg in The Renewal of Pagan Antiquity: Contributions to the Cultural History of the European Renaissance, Getty Research Institute, 1999, appendix I, 207). The tendency to invest worldly materials with otherworldly powers has been a consistent source of concern and debate for many religions. What this exhibition divulged, although it did not say explicitly, was that one might see the material as a conduit to the immaterial in theory, but in practice, one not only needed to see but also to touch/make/manufacture in order to believe.
Assistant Professor, Ithaca College
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